Living in sub zero:
Working at Halley VI, Antarctica
Millie Bond (2015)
Millie Bond left Headington in 2015 to study Chemistry at Oxford University and is currently doing a PhD in Atmospheric Chemistry at the British Antarctic Survey. She recently returned from an expedition to Halley VI Research Station, on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Halley VI was established in 1956 to study the Earth's atmosphere and provides scientists with state-of-the-art laboratories and living accommodation. Measurements taken at Halley VI led to the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 and the base enables scientists to study pressing global problems from climate change and sea-level rise to space weather. Millie tells us about the work she was doing at Halley VI and what challenges she faced working in sub zero temperatures.
Working in Antarctica has been a dream of mine since the age of 10, inspired by the early explorers there and, more recently, by my love for atmospheric chemistry. At Halley I was carrying out measurements of nitrous acid gas in the atmosphere, a gas that is at a very low concentration (so difficult to detect!) but still has a high impact on the concentrations and lifetimes of greenhouse gases. My project is a small building block in our understanding of the complex web of reactions occurring in the atmosphere. Working in Antarctica is essential as there is very little pollution which means background levels of all gases can be accurately understood. Despite the clean air of Antarctica I still had to work in a Clean Air Sector Laboratory 1.5km from the main station buildings to ensure there was no pollution from vehicles and generators in the air. As no vehicles were allowed near the lab, I tried many different modes of transport for the commute including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and even cycling.
There were around 35 of us on the station for the whole summer season with only the occasional arrival of different people when a plane passed through bringing supplies and science equipment. The team covered a mixture of roles, including scientists, engineers, vehicle operators, electricians, mechanics and the all-important chefs; it was great to meet such a variety of people who were all contributing to the smooth running of the station and the research. The station is located on the Brunt Ice Shelf, further from the UK than the International Space Station at times, 300km from the next nearest base and over 1500km from the main British base. The view was always the same; completely flat white landscape, something that
took a while to get used to. You also had to quickly get accustomed to factoring in the extra few minutes needed to put on all your layers before leaving any building. The daytime temperature was between -10oC and 0oC, with wind chill often reducing this to -20oC. Walking during poor weather posed a particular challenge; very deep drifts of powdery snow appear, and you can sometimes lose a whole leg into the snow. The driving snow caused by 50 knot winds also made things interesting; you cannot see the difference between the sky and snow surface. A lot of time was spent digging out doorways and steps after heavy snowfall, as well as filling the melt tank for freshwater, especially if you wanted a shower.
Other highlights of the expedition included trips off base to see nearby chasms in the ice shelf and, though wildlife was scarce, seeing different birds (snow petrels, storm petrels and skuas; sadly no penguins) flying over the station. It was also exciting to help with other science projects, including setting up an instrument to monitor background methane levels, and therefore understand the true extent of human perturbation of this, deploying and retrieving instruments used to monitor the ice shelf the station is located on and working with the Dobson instrument that was used in the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985. We also had the opportunity to drive the different vehicles at the station, including Piston Bullies, diggers and cranes, and launch weather balloons that record data about the atmosphere as they rise to heights of up to 30km. We were also lucky enough to witness a solar eclipse. While this occurred during the night, it was not a problem as the sun never sets during the Antarctic summer!
Overall, the three months I spent in Antarctica were the best experience of my life so far and truly a dream come true.